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Saturday 11 February 2012

Proof of Life

I belong to a large group of writers who consider that, once a book is published, it is no longer theirs. Yes, title and name go on but the reader takes over, to like what they read or not.

One of the most interesting parts of this change-over is the reader’s reaction to the behaviour and even fate of characters in the book. Just like the writer, the reader brings his or her own tastes, impressions and emotional life to the process.

Occasionally, someone will contact me to comment on a character. Don’t let this person go, for example. Or, as recently, ask why I let my character Cotton behave ungenerously to a girl called Anna, a Czech refugee working or trying to work in theatre during the freezing winter of 1947.

I usually have a back story for my characters. This is to help me ground them, but I don’t, of course, put all the back story in the book. The reader, if taken by the character, is free to provide their own.

My correspondent was taken with her. Her person, her difficulties and her reaction to them. She is, to use Muriel Spark’s title, a girl of slender means. She’s ambitious but trying to keep warm and to eat. As a result, she uses people and since she is ambitious, sometimes over-estimates the abilities of someone, like Cotton for example, to help her ambitions. I think it is fair to suggest that the hardness of her life encourages her to think others have much easier lives.

In the particulars of Icelight, Cotton behaves ungenerously, having returned to his flat with a newly acquired and bandaged razor wound about eight inches long on his right thigh.

In effect he passes Anna on to a dimwit with money who might be able to help her. But it does remain that he gets rid of her and does so without many flourishes.

I’d like to think this is convincing. But I may be wrong.

What I do know is that such reactions help this writer – it’s proof of life and as such both encourages me and makes me want to try harder.

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